The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory – Canada’s eye on the universe

4 December 2001

Some 2000 metres underground in a working nickel mine, physicists have installed one of the world’s most
sensitive instruments for observing the universe. Operational since 1999, the Sudbury Neutrino
Observatory has ambitious plans for the future. James Gillies reports.

It all began 1.8 billion years ago when geologists believe that a meteorite struck the Earth, creating what is

now the Sudbury basin in Canada. The impact allowed a rich seam of nickel-copper ore to rise through the

Earth’s crust around the rim of the crater. Today the Sudbury basin is circled with the world’s largest

concentration of nickel mines and in one of them, scientists accompany the miners on their morning

descent to the 6800 ft (2000 m) level.

The Sudbury landscape still has an unearthly quality about it.

Early mining efforts stripped away trees to provide fuel for smelting the ore, with the result that in the

1960s the Sudbury basin resembled a moonscape. NASA even sent moonshot astronauts there for training.

Today the trees are coming back, thanks in part to the mines themselves, where underground nurseries

provide warm stable conditions for trees to grow. “All you have to add is light,” said Art McDonald,

director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) as we stepped off the lift 2000 m underground. Here

the rock is constantly at a temperature of 40°C, making for a sticky 1.5 km walk along the “SNO drift” –

the tunnel connecting the mine shaft to SNO’s underground laboratory.

Cleanliness is the


Visiting SNO is an adventure in itself. Scientists and miners are indistinguishable in all but their

conversation as they descend in the lift. Overalls, miners’ lamps and safety harnesses are the order of the

day. Everything to be taken into the lab must be carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from the

omnipresent mine dust. Arriving at the lab, boots are rinsed down, clothes are removed and everyone takes a

shower before changing into a clean set of overalls and entering the lab.

Scrupulous attention to

cleanliness is one of the keys to SNO’s success. Incredibly, the laboratory maintains class-100 clean-room

conditions in the most sensitive areas and all areas are class-3000 or better. That means that everywhere

within the laboratory there are fewer than 3000 particles of 1 µm or larger per 1 m3 of air. A

typical room would give a count of around 100 000 particles and the SNO drift considerably more. Even

more impressive is that these clean conditions were maintained throughout the construction of the


The emphasis on purity does not end with the air. Systems for purifying the SNO

detector’s light and heavy water fill most of the available space. The 33 m deep, 22 m diameter chamber

that houses the detector is lined with several layers of plastic material that help to keep the radiation level

from uranium and thorium a full nine orders of magnitude lower than in the surrounding


Herb Chen’s experiment

SNO began collecting data in 1999, but its history goes back

much further. In 1984 Herb Chen of the University of California at Irvine first pointed out the advantages

of using heavy water as a detector for solar neutrinos. Two reactions – one sensitive only to electron-type

neutrinos, the other sensitive to all neutrino flavours – would allow such a detector to measure neutrino

oscillations directly. The Creighton mine in Sudbury – among the deepest in the world – was quickly

identified as an ideal place for Chen’s proposed experiment to be built and the SNO collaboration held its

first meeting in 1984.

There were substantial obstacles to overcome before the experiment could be

realized, not least of which was the cost of the heavy water. It was clear from the start that industrial

partners would have to be found. INCO, the company operating the Creighton mine, became a key player,

putting its infrastructure at SNO’s disposal and blasting out a new cavern for the experiment far away from

ongoing mine activity. Another key partner was found in the form of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited,

which provided C$330 million of heavy water on loan, free of charge. “In a sense we’re doing a greater than

C$600 million project for less than C$100 million in terms of capital cost,” explained


The experiment was approved in 1990. Excavation took three years and installation a

further five. The detector consists of a 12 m diameter acrylic sphere containing 1000 tonnes of heavy water

surrounded by light water and viewed by 10 000 photomultipliers. Filling the sphere with heavy water,

flooding the cavern with light water and calibrating the detector was complete by November 1999, allowing

data taking to begin.

In its first phase of running – to June 2001 – SNO’s analysis concentrated on the

measurement of boron-8 electron neutrinos from the Sun. These are detected at SNO via the charged current

process of electron neutrinos interacting with deuterons to produce two protons and an electron. First results

published in 2001, taken together with Superkamiokande’s previous measurement (The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory confirms the

oscillation picture) via the elastic scattering of boron-8 neutrinos from electrons with low sensitivity

to neutrino types other than electron neutrinos, provide compelling evidence for neutrino


The next step for SNO was to measure the total boron-8 neutrino flux to give a complete

measurement that is independent of the Superkamiokande result. To do this, salt has been added to the

heavy water. Salt increases SNO’s sensitivity to the flavour-blind process of neutral current

neutrino-deuteron interactions, which are identified by the detection of the photon emitted when the

deuteron’s neutron is captured. Capture on heavy water results in a 6.25 MeV photon, whereas capture on

chlorine releases an 8.6 MeV photon that is more easily detected. Moreover, the neutron capture probability

in SNO’s heavy water is around 25%, whereas in salt it rises to 85%. Radioactivity levels are also low for

this phase of the experiment and data analysis is under way.

In a third phase of running, scheduled to

begin in the second half of 2002, the salt will be removed and replaced by helium-3-filled proportional

counters. These will give the experiment an independent sensitivity to the neutral current process and allow

distortions in the solar boron-8 spectrum to be measured more accurately than


Supernovae warning

Solar neutrinos form just one strand of SNO’s research programme.

The experiment’s ability to single out electron-neutrino interactions and its high sensitivity to other

neutrino types gives it a powerful tool for investigating supernovae by observing the time development

between different neutrino types emerging from the explosion. SNO’s data-acquisition system, normally

running at around 10 Hz, is set up to buffer several hundred events in a window lasting just a few seconds if

necessary, and it also alerts the shift crew whenever the event rate rises significantly. This initiates an

analysis procedure, designed to identify whether noise or physics is responsible for the rise. SNO will be

part of the Supernova Early Warning System (SNEWS) along with the LVD (Gran Sasso),

Superkamiokande (Japan) and Amanda (South Pole) experiments. Signals sent to a central computer in

Japan can be studied for time coincidences and the astronomical community can be alerted in the case of a

supernova. The neutrino burst can precede light by several hours.

The detector’s location 2000 m

below a flat surface also makes it a particularly powerful instrument for observing neutrinos created via

cosmic-ray interactions in the atmosphere. In contrast with detectors under mountains, SNO has a 45°

window for measuring downward-moving neutrinos. A clear distinction between downward and

upward-moving neutrinos will allow SNO to make a model-independent measurement of atmospheric

neutrinos over a three- to four-year timescale.

SNO has a well defined programme until 2006 and

ambitious plans thereafter. The scientists envisage a shift in emphasis towards more subtle neutrino

physics and possible improvements to the SNO detector. Seasonal variations and correlations with the solar

cycle are on the agenda. SNO will also turn its attention to other neutrino oscillation processes in the


Canadian scientists are hopeful of extending the laboratory beyond the one experiment that it

currently houses. The Canadian government has recently launched the Canadian Foundation for Innovation

International Programme to generate world-class international research facilities in Canada, and Sudbury is a

strong contender. Having passed the first round of selection, the laboratory has been invited to submit a

detailed proposal by February. Under this C$30 million plan, the Sudbury site would acquire a new

experimental hall to house at least two new experiments. Final selection is scheduled for June


Herb Chen didn’t live to see his brainchild realized. He died in 1987, but his presence at

Sudbury is still very strongly felt. Copies of his 1984 Physical Review Letters paper hang proudly

around the laboratory and his portrait graces the entrance. SNO has put Sudbury firmly on the physics map,

but it hasn’t lost sight of its roots. “The SNO team is working very hard to accomplish the full physics

objectives while maintaining Herb’s memory as a constant inspiration,” explained


Further reading

Herb Chen 1984 Phys. Rev. Lett. 55

SNO Collaboration 2000 Nuclear Instruments and Methods A449

SNO Collaboration 2001 Phys. Rev. Lett. 87 07301 1-6.

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